In the summer of 1991, the received wisdom on Kathryn Bigelow—especially in the wake of Point Break—was that she was a rising star, making a mark on Hollywood where other women directors had not, by applying her talent to traditional action genres. Here was a woman who made men’s films, not women’s, and was rewarded for it by both critics and the box office.
Those turned out to be half-truths. Today, anyone who’s been paying attention can see that in adopting the male gaze, and in making two films in which women barely mattered and one in which they barely appeared, Bigelow wasn’t selling out, but was illuminating more about women than a dozen “women’s movies” ever could. It wasn’t about making it in a man’s world; it was about confronting and puncturing the eternally adolescent self-importance of “men’s work”—sabotaging not only the buddy action movie, but the whole testosterone-soaked world of moviemaking both on screen and off.
[originally published in Film Comment Volume 31, Number 5, September/October 1995]
Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 genre-juicing vampire film Near Dark opens close up on a leggy mosquito poised to tap into screen-spanning flesh. Apt epigraph for a film about heartland bloodsuckers; but also your ticket into any of the intensely sensual, romantically nihilistic excursion – The Loveless, Blue Steel, Point Break, and now Strange Days – head-tripped by this dark daughter of Hawks and Hitchcock. Bigelow’s movies gauge psyches and society in extremis, running on empty. Her nomadic protagonists, “riders” of one stripe or another, hooked on whatever “zap” best fuels them, cruise the nervous systems of her often hyperreal “outside” – unspooling ribbons of baked macadam, rain- and neon-slicked streets, granite-gray arches of breaking surf, even brightly surging brainwaves – trying to stay ahead of their own shadows.
Latterday kin to Hawks’s daredevil existentialists, Bigelow folk all hanker after heartstopping action and spectacle, the sort of “speed” that punches life up to top gear and outruns terminal ennui. Hanging out on the edge of the world, emotionally and in the flesh, these are orphans to the bone – loners, outlaws, pariahs. Plugged into jerry-rigged “families” for dangerous shelter, their rage and despair often explode into demonic self-projections.
First things first: Weâ€™re not jumping on the Bigelow Bandwagon here. Weâ€™ve known from the beginning. We saw the promise in The Loveless and Blue Steeland the genius in Near Dark and Strange Days, defended Point Break and K-19: The Widowmaker against detractors who saw them as nothing more than shallow pandering to the mainstream action movie market, and now watch with satisfaction the triumph of The Hurt Locker and with amusement the teapot tempest over the implications of a Best Director Oscar for Kathryn Bigelow.
The issue is whether it is more politically incorrect to honor a woman for excelling in the making of films viewed by many as fundamentally â€œwomenâ€™s moviesâ€ (say, Jane Campion) or to honor a woman (say, Kathryn Bigelow) for breaking out and excelling at making films that appeal chiefly to men. Nora Ephron sought to neutralize the dilemma in her apt comment that when you make a movie youâ€™re not a â€œwoman director,â€ youâ€™re a director. But Ephron herself doesnâ€™t make very interesting movies, and her observation may suggest why. Why shouldnâ€™t weexpect a woman director to make films that are aboutâ€”or at least sensitive toâ€”a womanâ€™s point of view? Donâ€™t we expect a black, or a Turkish, or a disabled director to bring to his art the unique perspectives of his experience? Isnâ€™t that what artistsâ€”at least the best onesâ€”always do?
For too many years, itâ€™s been standard to characterize Bigelow as a maker of â€œaction movies,â€ â€œmenâ€™s movies,â€ or â€œmovies that appeal to men.â€ The growing body of critical work on Bigelowâ€™s films, however, takes a different view, one that invalidates both the Bigelow-Campion debate and Ephronâ€™s nullification. Read almost any serious study of Bigelow and you are likely to encounter the phrase â€œthe female gaze.â€ And rightly so. Bigelow is compellingly drawn to the things that make men and women different, the things that separate them. When her films focus on predominantly or exclusively male communities, they betray an interest in how the absence or rejection of women affects male behavior and consciousness.